The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 10, 2001
Afghan girls, a place to learn
the reach of Taliban, U.N.-assisted schools are seeing increasing female
War With Terrorr
Afghanistan - The teenage students giggled and blushed at the presence of
visitors, trying out a few words of English. "Come in. Please. Thank
you. How are you?"
their faces uncloaked, the students at the Lycee Mkahfi, a girls' school
in this northern Afghanistan city, were totally different creatures from
the veiled phantoms who walk silently through the streets in their
full-length burqas, the tentlike garments that women must wear in public
in conservative Islamic culture.
the classroom setting they seemed like any other girls, awkward and shy.
Mkahfi, founded in 1953, is the oldest of five girls' schools in Feyzabad.
Such schools, once common across Afghanistan, became rare after the
hard-line Taliban Islamic movement took control of 90 percent of the
country, banning such activities as movies, kite-flying and virtually all
education for girls.
Taliban doesn't want girls to go to school and receive knowledge,"
said Shabnam Bahar, 15, who is studying chemistry and hopes to become a
doctor at the small medical university in Feyzabad, one of the last cities
still controlled by the Afghan opposition.
a rare glimpse behind the school's chipped, whitewashed walls, the
students and teachers spoke of their hopes for peace and their fear of the
Taliban, targeted by U.S. forces for shielding Osama bin Laden, the
suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
school - 18 tiny classrooms around a dusty concrete courtyard - serves
1,148 students in three shifts. Most classes have neither desks nor
chairs; students sit on plastic tarpaulins on the floor. The curriculum
includes math, geography, sciences and Afghan history. Students learn
Arabic, Persian, Pashtun and English (which the English teacher does not
speak). Religious education is confined to Koranic studies.
also may attend the classes, but they must enroll in a separate school for
boys when they reach fourth grade.
of the teachers and students at the Lycee Mkahfi are from Kabul, having
fled to Feyzabad after the Taliban entered the capital in 1996.
Mursal, 15, said her family left two years ago partly because they were
concerned that she was not getting an education. "We had hoped things
would get better."
the Taliban announced it would shut down schools for girls in Kabul,
Mursal was taught by her mother at home. She also took private lessons
from a tutor, though she was careful to tell the Taliban minders who
questioned her on the street that she was going to visit a relative.
is an obligation for men and women," she said.
students and teachers said they attended underground schools in Kabul
under the pretext of studying the Koran or learning a craft such as
the children don't get an education, the country won't develop," said
Shireen, 56, who lost her Kabul teaching job after the Taliban takeover
and declined to give her last name because she still fears the leadership.
"Now we are already one century behind the rest of the world."
says it is not un-Islamic for girls to receive an equal education:
"Half of society are women. We should also get an education and work
with men. Society needs us."
feelings they expressed may sound mild to Western ears, but in this part
of the world these women are practically radical feminists.
there is widespread revulsion here to the Taliban's rigid interpretation
of Islam, this impoverished and mountainous region is hardly a bastion of
liberalism. After Afghanistan's communist government collapsed in 1992 and
an Islamic state was established, social pressure forced women to return
to wearing burqas or chadors when out in public.
women do hold some jobs at hospitals, and one is even an anchor on the
local television news, there are no female shopkeepers, no female
restaurant workers, no women in any job in which they are likely to come
into contact with men. Most women even profess to enjoy wearing the burqas.
"It is our tradition," student Bahar said.
at the girls' schools in Feyzabad had declined considerably in recent
years, largely because of the miserable economic circumstances in
Afghanistan, impoverished after 23 years of civil war. Teachers were
unpaid and few students bothered to enroll in the schools run by the
opposition government. UNICEF officials, concerned about falling
enrollment, devised a program using precious wheat from the World Food
Program as an incentive to students, teachers and staff to improve their
students receive 27.5 pounds of wheat for each month in which they attend
classes at least 22 days; teachers get 110 pounds. Female students receive
the added incentive of 26 gallons of cooking oil.
years into the incentive program at 50 schools in opposition territory,
29,600 students are receiving benefits. Whereas only 4 percent of girls
were enrolled in school before, now about 25 percent are.
only has attendance gone up, but it has completely reduced absenteeism of
teachers, and the student dropout rate has fallen," said Abdul Latif,
a spokesman for the food program.
the program is creating a generation of educated girls who may demand more
opportunities to use their education, local mullahs did not oppose the
effort. "Even the clergy expressed their willingness to endorse the
program," Latif said.
the school is encountering a different problem: Too many students want to